A lawsuit filed 16 months ago by a former student against Elizabethtown College has recently garnered national attention as decisions over requested dismissals were handed down by the federal court in August. Christopher J. Reichert, a 2007 elementary education entrant into the College, filed a lawsuit against Etown indicating the College “violated his rights as a disabled person, breached a contract with him, and violated federal and state laws by accessing his emails without permission.”
The majority of the charges brought against the College were dismissed, per its request, although an accusation that Etown violated Reichert’s civil rights under a Section 1985 of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 claim has been denied dismissal and granted to move forward. Reichert claims that the College held numerous, secretive meetings for the purpose of removing him from the institution. This allegation was taken into account along with numerous allegations made by Reichert that the College discriminated against him due to his disability.
According to Gareth D. Pahowka, a school law attorney of Stock and Leader out of York, Pa., and neutral party to the case, suing an organization based on a Section 1985 claim can be very difficult, as the plaintiff must establish a conspiracy by the defendant motivated by race or class-based discrimination.
“I would look to see whether the plaintiff has expressly alleged that there was some agreement among the conspirators,” Pahowka said. “I would file a motion to dismiss a Section 1985 claim that lacks the specific supporting facts suggesting there was some sort of mutual understanding among the alleged conspirators to violate the plaintiff’s civil rights.”
Reichert also alleges that the College violated his rights to privacy and due process under the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, stating that the College should be held responsible for state action due to funding it receives and ability to determine who becomes a state certified teacher.
This allegation was dismissed due to the widely rejected notion that a private university is held to the standards attributed to having state authority by providing an education. Also, the College is not provided the powers of teacher certification in Pennsylvania, but instead simply recommends graduates for certification to the department of education.
“The Pennsylvania Public School code requires teacher certification applicants to … complete an approved teacher preparation program and receive the recommendation of their college,” Pahowka said. “Without a college recommendation, the applicant would have a difficult time obtaining certification.”
Reichert also made several allegations against the College by claiming that his email account was accessed and monitored without his permission. These claims were dismissed by the court because the alleged monitoring occurred within a College-provided account and the College reserves the right to access student accounts.
According to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania memorandum, this lawsuit was ultimately brought about for a number of reasons cited by the plaintiff. Reichert claims he was denied priority scheduling and was required to take difficult classes during his tenure at the College, beginning his sophomore year.
Eventually, Reichert engaged in a heated argument with one of his professors while attempting to drop their class, which was then reported to the chairman of the education department, Dr. Carroll Tyminski. Tyminski ultimately called a meeting with other education department faculty members to discuss complaints against Reichert and, considering him a threat to the College, felt he should be expelled.
This expulsion, however, was ultimately overruled by Provost Susan Traverso, after protests were filed by Reichert and his parents, though a plan was eventually initiated to force Reichert from the College, according to the court memorandum.
Reichert suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a seizure disorder and other “learning disabilities in written expression and reading fluency,” according to the court memorandum published following the dismissals.
In a written statement prepared for the Etownian, Reichert claimed, “When I attempted to self-advocate [for disability accommodations] during my sophomore year, I was treated with derision, contempt and finally told that I would be expelled from the College and would not be permitted to major in education unless I obtained a psychological risk-assessment.”
According to Reichert, he was treated as though he had threatened a professor. “I have never threatened anyone,” Reichert said. “I have never physically attacked anyone and the College’s references to such allegations are false.”
“For the next year-and-a-half Elizabethtown College allowed me to take classes, and formally welcomed me into the education department,” Reichert continued. “Unbeknownst to me, they were preparing a list of ways in which they could get rid of me for good.” Reichert claims that in the fall of 2009, the College held three separate hearings to dismiss Reichert, barring him from representation by any counsel outside the College community.
“With the build up of stress, pressure, and anxiety at the end of my methods block semester, the lack of accommodations provided to me caused me to have an epileptic seizure at the elementary school I was assigned field placement hours,” Reichert said. “I was thrown out of the education department and would soon be thrown out of Elizabethtown College because I tried, unsuccessfully, to advocate for myself as the College’s policy requires.”
“The College is vigorously defending against Mr. Reichert’s allegations and is very confident that the evidence that will be presented will in no way support his contentions,” Liz Braungard, executive director of marketing and communications, wrote in the College’s own statement to the Etownian. “Given the pendency of the litigation, the College is not at liberty to discuss the specifics of the lawsuit. We can say, without any doubt or hesitancy, however, that Elizabethtown College has always welcomed and will continue to welcome and mentor qualified students with diverse talents and capabilities.”
Litigation will continue concerning Reichert’s allegations that his rights were violated due to the defendant’s meetings with the purpose of unlawfully removing him from the College. However, the growing story seems to be the reaction, both on campus and around the tech circles of the country, concerning the legality and legitimacy behind the College’s monitoring of Reichert’s student email account.
“Schools should make people agree that when they use the school’s email account, they may be subjected to monitoring under the circumstances the school specifies in advance,” Daniel J. Solove said on TeachPrivacy.com, concerning the case. “It is best practice to put people on notice when they will be monitored.”
Pahowka seems to agree. “Providing notice and even obtaining the users’ consent will help to avoid potential privacy claims,” he said. “Students and staff should realize they have limited privacy when using college-provided email accounts.”